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The Dewar Project

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“The People’s History of the West Highlands”

John Dewar was a Gaelic-speaking native of Arrochar (Dunbartonshire) who lived from 1802 to 1872. Paid by the duke of Argyll, he spent the last ten years or so of his life wandering around the West Highlands taking down historical tales in Gaelic from the mouths of the people. These were collected by his principal patron, John Francis Campbell of Islay (the duke’s cousin) into ten manuscripts, seven of which are in the Argyll Papers at Inveraray Castle, and three of which are in the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh, consisting of altogether 4,338 pages of writing. Taken together, these form a chaotic but priceless collection of traditional stories that may be described as ‘the people’s history of the West Highlands, in their own language, from 1306 to 1752’.

As Dewar left it, the material is a complete hotch-potch. There is no overall scheme, and the stories, notes and fragments are in no particular order. Many stories are repeated, but none of the repetitions are quite the same as any of the others. All have value. It is the job of The Dewar Project to make sense of it all, reducing the material to a regular scheme without interfering with Dewar’s actual words, and publishing it all in Gaelic and English.

The Dewar Project was founded in 2017. From then until 15 August 2023 it depended totally on the voluntary labour of a team of transcribers and others scattered around the world. We owe them a huge debt, and they are listed on the ‘Dewar Team’ page. On 15 August 2023 the basic transcription and translation of the 4,338 pages of the Dewar Manuscripts was completed, leaving us with a magnificent digital legacy. On that date we moved fully into phases 2 and 3 of the project. Phase 2 consists of sorting individual page-files of transcription and translation into complete stories, arranged by geographical area, and told separately in Gaelic and English. This work is in the capable hands of our former transcriber and transcript-checker Sandy Johnstone. Phase 3 consists of research and publication, and this, too, is well under way. Our first book, John Dewar’s Islay, Jura and Colonsay, will be published in the second quarter of 2024, and all going well, John Dewar’s Perthshire and Loch Lomond will appear in 2026.

The purpose of this website is not to publish our work but to tell you about it. Our work will be published in our books, ten of which are planned, corresponding with the map above. If you want to find out exactly what is in the manuscripts, see the Story-List page. For an illustrated account of them see the Manuscripts page. If you would like to know who we are, see ‘The Dewar Team’. For details on how the work is coming along, see ‘Progress Report’. As the site develops, the ‘Commentaries’ page will bring you essays and other spin-offs, beginning with a published article about John Dewar and The Dewar Project. The ‘Gallery’ page will contain a miscellany of images of Highland scenes, old and new, explaining how they connect to Dewar and his stories. Please feel free to contribute to it. ‘Our Publications’ will describe our books, but if you want to order one on-line, there is a separate sales website www.johndewarpublishers.com.

Finally, if you would like to help the Dewar Project financially, see the ‘Sponsorship’ page, and if you feel you can help in other ways, see the foot of the ‘Dewar Team’ page (as you will see there, what we are mainly looking for now is a speleologist to identify, explore and photograph the 50+ caves mentioned by Dewar in his stories).

We are grateful to His Grace the Duke of Argyll for permission to reproduce and quote from manuscripts in his possession (‘The Argyll Papers’). Likewise, we are indebted to the National Library of Scotland for permission to reproduce and quote from manuscripts in their care.